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Big Earl Hamilton was already considered somewhat legendary before the very thing that brought him fame brought him down with a single bullet to the head.
In 1994, “Big Earl’s Goldmine” — a strip club business on the outskirts of Des Moines in Polk County, Iowa that Hamilton owned and operated — became the county’s first topless and bottomless “juice bar” — a club which serves no alcohol and therefore is beyond the regulation of state liquor authorities.
Big Earl’s Goldmine featured nude dancers, and though the bar could sell nothing stronger than soft drinks, customers were allowed to bring in their own alcohol if they so chose.
The business thrived, but Big Earl’s luck was about to change.
As he closed up at approximately 3 a.m. on Sunday, September 29, 1996, an unknown assailant shot Big Earl, 53, in the head outside the club.
Hamilton was flown to a local hospital where he was pronounced dead.
Officials ruled out robbery as a motive, and speculation had it that Big Earl might have been slain over a dispute that had arisen over his firing of several nude dancers.
Four female exotic dancers from the Milwaukee area were sought by authorities for questioning about a month after Hamilton’s death.
“We just want to question them about their whereabouts and activities,” Polk County sheriff’s detective Dennis Marshall said in an October 22, 1996 telephone interview with the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel. Marshall acknowledged the investigation had shifted toward Milwaukee, though no one was ever charged in Hamilton’s slaying.
Three years later, the club – then operated by Hamilton’s son – burned down on March 9, 1999 in what appeared to be an arson fire set for personal reasons by a family acquaintance.
Crews from seven cities were called in to fight the early Tuesday morning blaze, which Saylor Township Assistant Fire Chief John Norris said took more than six hours to battle.
“The building is a complete loss,” Norris told the Associated Press on Thursday, March 11, adding that a preliminary investigation showed no signs of suspicious activity.
The case for arson was never proven and the suspect pleaded guilty to second-degree burglary. He was sentenced to probation and ordered to perform “100 hours of community service in fire prevention.”
In April 2007, Dr. T.A. Kevlin – who holds advanced degrees in history and criminology – cited “Big Earl’s” murder in his book “Headless Man In Topless Bar: Studies of 725 cases of strip club related criminal homicides.”
The book’s individual chapters covered the murders of dancers, customers, bouncers, employees and managers, and other organized crime related killings in the strip club business.
Channel 13’s Aaron Brilbeck reports on the unsolved 1996 murder of “Big Earl” Hamilton. August 5, 2010
Earl Riley Hamilton was born June 15, 1943. His case remains unsolved today, and the family has offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in his case.
Earl was buried at the Glendale Cemetery in Des Moines.
If you have any information you think might help solve this case, please contact the Polk County Sheriff’s Office at (515) 286-3814.